1 = Skip it
5 = Try it
10 = Buy it

(Illustrations by James Taylor.)

Tom the Guitar Hero
A song by his group True Love was recently featured on The O.C. Currently opening a recording studio in Hoboken. Describes himself as “psyched” to learn that he’s younger than the members of his new favorite band, the Hold Steady.

Peter the Enduring Enthusiast
Gained a reputation for encyclopedic knowledge of the music world in his late-seventies days at NYU film school; keeps up with the Nellie McKays of the world though he’s settled in Park Slope with wife and daughter. Interests range from Sinéad O’Connor to Sam Cooke. All-time favorite concert: the Neville Brothers.

Gabriella the Freshman
A Manhattanite born and raised who graduated last summer from Trinity. Believes Freddie Mercury owned the greatest voice in human history. Current favorites include the Strokes, the Stones, and an Afro-Cuban rap quartet called Orishas.

Photo: Courtesy of Sony

Modern Times
Bob Dylan
The Victoria’s Secret pitchman’s 44th album, featuring ten tracks with old-timey names (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ”) and old-timey instrumentation (honky-tonk piano, steel guitar, and the like).

Tom [Rating: 8]: The music here is by-the-numbers bluesy fare, and if you’ve ever been in a jam session, you’ll know that trying to play a I-IV-V chord progression without sounding comically masturbatory, like the bar band in Road House or something, is nearly impossible. Unless you’re as cool as Bob Dylan and can still throw out aphorisms like “tomorrow keeps turning around” at age 65.
Best track: “Thunder On the Mountain”

Peter [Rating: 7]: The consensus seems to be that Dylan’s first No. 1 record in 30 years is his best since Blood on the Tracks, but I’m not buying it. It’s enjoyably atmospheric in the tossed-off-in-the-living-room way he’s perfected. But the songs are long, repetitious, and often less than engaging lyrically, lacking the thematic ambition and melodic variety of Love and Theft (which is still his best since Blood on the Tracks).
Best track: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

Gabriella [Rating: 5]: Feels like the work of a local act down South. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Dylan’s singing weren’t so bland—maybe he was trying to be understated, but it’s just dull, and adds nothing to lyrical themes (and sometimes actual lyrics, like “If it keep on rainin’, the levee gonna break”) that we’ve heard before.
Best track: “Nettie Moore”

Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth/RCA

Back To Basics
Christina Aguilera
A double album mixing old- and new-school R&B with a sheen of torch-singer classiness that’s an intentional departure for the erstwhile advocate of the “dirrty” lifestyle.

Tom [Rating: 7]:Cynics might say that Christina Aguilera is giving shout-outs to Etta James, John Coltrane, and Marvin Gaye because she feels like she’s already earned a spot in the musical-genius firmament. Maybe, but those mentions actually get a few whippersnappers who’ve never heard of Let’s Get It On to fire up their search engines, and the soul and jazz samples found here indicate that she’s at least a legit fan.
Best track: “Makes Me Wanna Pray”

Peter [Rating: 4]:To me, this set is most appealing when Aguilera remembers the album’s mission to “pay tribute to those before me who laid it down and paved the way,” singing solid blues, gospel, and swing tricked up with hip-hop scratching and trippy effects. But too often her big voice ends up fighting meandering modern pop and insipid lyrics that signify mostly because they’re sung so loud.
Best track: “Makes Me Wanna Pray”

Gabriella [Rating: 2]:No doubt she has a good voice, but the constant vocal roller coaster gets irksome and didn’t exactly remind me of her self-proclaimed influences like Ella Fitzgerald or Otis Redding. Reams of unnecessary “ooohh-whooahh-ohh”s have stuck in my head and driven me crazy for days.
Best track: “I Got Trouble”

Photo: Autumn De Wilde/Interscope Records

The Information
Eclectic rap-rock produced by Nigel Godrich, who, ever since he worked with Radiohead on OK Computer, must be mentioned prominently in any description of an album he is even remotely associated with. Really, it’s the law.

Tom [Rating: 9]: The grooves are groovy, the hooks are delivered with appealing nonchalance, and there’s not a single bar or verse that doesn’t provide evidence of Beck’s uncanny hipness radar.
Best track: “Cellphone’s Dead”

Peter [Rating: 6]: A tongue-in-cheek countdown, drumming on a basic kit, a simple bass line, Beck starts to rap, and the record begins. It’s a comforting sound, but while Beck has great taste and a fabulous sonic vocabulary, his limited vocal range means he has to push himself to write (and sing) effective melodies. He’s done it before, but most of this album doesn’t escape a seeming songwriting malaise.
Best track: “Elevator Music”

Gabriella [Rating: 10]: I love everything about this album, from the more-literal-than-usual lyrics to the page of stickers that comes in the case to the fact that Beck’s credited with playing Game Boy in the liner notes. A perfect CD to play while driving with the windows down.
Best track: “Think I’m in Love”

Photo: Anton Corbijn/Island Records

Sam’s Town
The Killers
Disco-rockers and noted eyeliner enthusiasts attempt a U2-style transformation, featuring a musical turn toward fist-pumping anthems and publicity photos involving beards and leather jackets.

Tom [Rating: 5]:I’ll probably catch hell for saying this from my indie-cred-patrolling drinking buddies, but there was a song called “Mr. Brightside” on the last Killers album that could hold its own against anything in the U2, R.E.M., Cars, or XTC catalogues. You’d be better served by downloading “Mr. Brightside” than trying to untangle this mess.
Best track:“When You Were Young”

Peter [Rating: 5]:Parts of this album remind me variously of the Pixies, Queen, Springsteen, U2, New Order, the Strokes, and many others. For all the Killers’ big sound, though, they no longer seem destined to be a big band. The great ones have a mission, whether it’s expressed through a particular sound or just a point of view. Hot Fuss (their last album) had that single-mindedness. Here, it’s hard to figure out what they’re singing about, and harder still to understand why they’re singing at all.
Best track: “This River is Wild”

Gabriella [Rating: 7]:I’m still a fan, but I preferred the way the Killers sounded (and looked) when Brandon Flowers still wore glittery eyeliner. On the plus side, his voice, which is sweet but not incredibly strong, matches up nicely with the mellower sound on this album.
Best track: “Read My Mind”

Photo: Courtesy of Def Jam

Release Therapy
The inventively graphic Atlantan returns with an album featuring slightly—emphasize slightly—more introspection and less Dirty South bounce than usual.

Tom[Rating: 7]:The sparse, synthoid sound of a lot of new hip-hop reminds me of my old cell phone’s ring tone, and I have all the typical objections to bling-blunts-bitches lyrics. Ludacris doesn’t venture very far outside this paradigm, but his rhymes are genuinely funny, and the syncopated bass-drum patterns in his beats give the songs an urgency I find lacking in the bits and pieces of top 40 rap and reggaeton I pick up walking around the city.
Best track: “Girls Gone Wild”

Peter [Rating: 3]:I was disposed to like Ludacris. He was funny on that Kanye West song and great in Crash, and I worked with a woman last year who said he was a good guy. And since I’m a reluctant old man, finding hip-hop I enjoy makes me feel young, but this isn’t it. Too many dismal clanging beats, ridiculous bragging, and humorless talk about seduction.
Best track: “Slap”

Gabriella [Rating: 5]:Vulgarity can be a good thing—the bawdier Ludacris’s lyrics, the better and catchier his songs. I’m not a member of the demographic (men) that’s supposed to enjoy lines like “Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis / Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius,” but they still make me laugh.
Best track: “Money Maker”